AMANDA ST. JOHN - MUSCLE SHOALS SESSIONS
TOMORROW IN FITZROY - 29.9.19

THE ORPHAN BRIGADE - TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

TOB

Very occasionally, I end up with a sermon that I think is so prophetically edged, that I cannot wait to preach it BUT I am terrified that I won’t be able to do it justice. To The Edge of The World is an album that I am terrified to review because I worry that I might not quite nail it, explain it, express my love for it. 

Late last year I had the privilege of a cup of coffee with Ben Glover in my office. He’s a songwriter I admire and I loved his last solo record Shorebound very much.

In the course of the conversation he told me that his collaborative with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, The Orphan Brigade, were going to write an album about the East Coast of Antrim. My head blew off and we talked about The Children of Lir, Ballycastle’s Black Nun and how he hoped he might get John Prine to sing on a song about Slemish.

To say I was excited was an understatement. Our house is in Ballycastle and we spend a lot of time down that East Coast. I spent my youth gazing out at Slemish and climbing it many Easter Sunday mornings. Imagine an album of songs about my places. Like Springsteen’s New Jersey. My stories almost canonised in song.

I became aware early this year that The Orphan Brigade were indeed in Northern Ireland and I surmised how it might be going. Then in August Ben honoured me by sending me those songs. 

I walked over to the Bonamargy Friary in Ballycastle and listened to Black Nun at Julia McQuillan’s grave where they had actually written the song. The next day I headed down to Kinbane Head where they wrote the title song. Then I walked along Ballycastle beach looking out at the cold seas of Moyle listening to Children Of Lir. I had never experienced an album in this way before or with more pride and joy as I listened in the places that what I was hearing were created.

Writing in the outdoors was a unique The Orphan Brigade way to go about their art. Their debut was done in a haunted house in Kentucky, their sophomore in caves in Italy. The Antrim coastline seems like a breeze in comparison. The Northern Irish breeze can be felt in the sound, right the way through.

It is amazing how many young fair maidens have reportedly died in tragic circumstances in the 30 or so miles from Glenarm, home village of the aforementioned Ben Glover, to Ballycastle. These songs cover four such tales and add a Spanish nobleman from the Spanish Armada who drowned and was buried under a chestnut tree near Cairncastle. Add to that a prophetic nun and St. Patrick himself and we have the makings of a drama more fascinating than Game Of Thrones, also associated with the scenes of this album.

The sound is wonderful. There’s an American folk blues foundation throughout but the mandolins, flutes, fiddles and pipes impregnates everything with the Irish location. I was gazing across to Fair Head from Kinbane Head, Rathlin to my left, and Scotland ahead. There was a wind upon on the water and when Barry Kerr’s uilleann pipes came in it was spine tingling - the sound perfect for the view. The campfire sound of Children Of Lir was perfect for a beach walk listen. You can feel the boat rocking from side to side in Glenarm Bay for Captain’s Song (Sorley Boy). In the latter John Prine comes in and it is utterly wondrous to imagine that voice singing about our Sorley Boy, on our seas! 

I could go on… let me. St Patrick On Slemish Mountain is pure Gospel in a sound that would be likely to appear if Woody Guthrie came across Mumford & Sons; The Lumineers could cover Fair Head’s Daughter; Under The Chestnut Tree has the sweetest melancholy in a beguiling Celtic swing; Mind The Road like a closing prayer takes us into Ireland’s terrible beauty of glens and coastline along side "the lingering shadow of a gunman". 

When Ben left my office after that coffee I was excited. I had anticipation at what this, yet to be written, record might be but I was also apprehensive. What if it was no good! I should have had more faith. This is, I believe, The Orphan Brigade at the peak of their powers, all three individually and the three as collective. It is the spirit and breeze of my favourite coastline in the world made song. Thank you guys! 

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